The 13th Floor

Exploring VIDEODROME: The Perfect Horror Film for the Modern Media Age

At this very moment, probably from right where you are sitting, you currently have direct and immediate access to more televised/filmed entertainment than you could perhaps watch over the course of a hundred lifetimes.

Thanks to the internet, popular online streaming services, and an explosion of constantly-running cable TV networks, there is more entertainment being produced than ever before. It is now possible to watch a screen 24 hours a day for the rest of your life, consuming nothing but your selected genre, and stay comfortably holed up in your own mind, ridding the rest of the world from your repertoire. If it weren’t for jobs and sex, some people wouldn’t leave the couch at all.

While a certain breed of shut-in apologists find nothing wrong with this model, many are concerned about what this might be doing to the human mind in the long run. How healthy is it to constantly be staring at a screen? What does the consumption of media do to the human consciousness? Why is it considered a wholly negative thing to give TV to a child under the age of three? And if we are susceptible to an increasingly sensationalist collection of media images — sex and violence, oh my! — then is it possible we are doing something much more insidious to our minds than we think? And what sort of regulations need to be put into place to mitigate our constant consumption, if any?

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In an age so pervasively dominated by media and media-disseminating technology, David Cronenberg’s 1983 neo-horror classic VIDEODROME seems to be looking more and more relevant. Indeed, although it couldn’t have predicted the internet, VIDEODROME seems to speak almost directly to the world in 2016, predicting and warning of the dangers that were to come. Our conscious minds seem to have taken a blow thanks to the way we so casually consume media imagery, and VIDEODROME was there over 30 years ago to warn us.

VIDEODROME tells the story of an underground UHF TV broadcaster named Max Renn (James Woods) who has been sending out signals of softcore pornography films and other not-safe-for-the-kiddies programming. His station is based loosely on the real-life Canadian broadcasting station CITY TV, which was a 1970s UHF station that also ran softcore programming. These freelance TV stations — both the real and the fictional — argued that they had a right to use public airwaves, and the rhetoric of “free information to the people” is something that has been repeated often in recent arguments about regulating the internet.

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Max Renn, however, is well-spoken in his desires to change the way people see TV, and in the film is invited on media-analysis talk shows to discuss how an explosion of TV technology is going to be handled in the near future. Max finds something of a disembodied guru in a man named Brian O’Blivion (played by Jack Creley), a philosopher who only appears on TVs, and who feels that the future of human interaction will be made entirely through screens. Sounds about right. His catchphrase “The cathode ray tube is the retina of the mind’s eye.” The tech has changed, but the sentiment remains important.

Max Renn also discovers a strange pirated TV signal called VIDEODROME, which features nothing but torture scenes 24 hours a day. He doesn’t know who is broadcasting it, or if the torture is actually real, but he is determined to co-opt the signal and broadcast it himself. You can’t take your eyes off of it, he argues, and that’s worth seeing. Gradually, over the course of the film, he finds that through the constant exposure to extreme imagery, and through a long series of increasingly abstract conversations, that he may be experiencing madness and hallucinations. Indeed, after a while, his mind becomes so bent that we can’t be sure if anything is real or not.

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This has long been a part of the discussion when it comes to the over-consumption of media. How much is it affecting your mind? This is especially important in discussions about violence in TV shows, video games and movies. Is the constant exposure to violence robbing the consumer of their empathy? Are people becoming numb to human suffering? Is violence just background noise now? For Max Renn, his mind is being literally altered by his constant consumption of and interest in violent media.

It’s furthermore posited in VIDEODROME that Max Renn’s mind is not just being altered, but that it was susceptible to alteration, thanks to an overall erosion of his empathy, brought on by a life of TV viewing. While “erosion of empathy” may sound like an alarmist phrase invented by hang-wringing media watchdogs and worrywart parent groups, one may find that it is actually happening in the world right now.

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Many studies have been released exposing what online life is doing/has done to people in terms of allowing them to relate to people. Online life, it is found over and over, essentially allows everyone to be a narcissist, and they are embracing the title all too readily. You can read articles in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and Psychology Today all addressing what appears to be a rise in self-regard.

Narcissism is not addressed in VIDEODROME, but narcissism may serve as a small taste of the extremity of consciousness damage depicted in the film. VIDEODROME takes the self-involvement to a dangerous level, growing it into full-bore paranoid fantasy. By the end of VIDEODROME, Max Renn has been inducted into a cult, and he seems to believe that secret information is being communicated to him through TV signal (a common paranoid fantasy of schizophrenics). He envisions these information-infection fantasies as perhaps-hallucinated sequences wherein shadowy government officials jam Betamax cassettes into a VCR slot that has grown in his chest.

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Clinical paranoia is, we should recall, a mere extension of narcissism. It’s a state of mind that implies that the paranoid person is important enough to warrant scrutiny from whatever shadowy organization they envision. To Cronenberg, it’s doubtless a small leap from believing you are an internet celebrity to thinking that everyone is out to get you. At least that’s the view expressed in VIDEODROME.

So we are eager to consume media, we are eager to project ourselves, and we fancy ourselves notable figures in a vast tapestry of people who are always watching us. VIDEODROME saw all of this years ago, and warned that we shouldn’t be allowing this to happen to us. If our minds become to lost, it’s not long before we’re wallowing in personal chaos. And, here’s the real kicker, open to manipulation. Max Renn ends up being a pawn in a perhaps-hallucinated cabal of underground media police. Murderous Marshall McLuhans, if you will. They tell him what to do, and he cannot refuse. This is both an examination of the way schizophrenia works, of course, but it’s also a way of linking extreme schizophrenia with intensified media consumption. To Cronenberg, the link is obvious.

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I wonder if Cronenberg feels the same way today. When it comes to discussions of filmmaking technology, the filmmaker has been an open proponent of all the recent digital tools, bells, and whistles. He once said in an interview that he’s happy about people being able to skip around on a DVD, consuming only their favorite scenes of films. At the same time, though, Cronenberg’s films have remained spare, almost austere, in their aesthetic. I’m guessing Cronenberg, himself, even while using his iPhone, feels that voluminous media consumption is still something of a blight.

VIDEODROME is a chilling film for a media-obsessed age, and has some hard questions about what we might be doing to ourselves. It instills fear of something we feel we require, and condemns parts of ourselves we may not want to confront. It’s perhaps one of the more important horror movies of the modern age.

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